06/18/2010 11:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is there a Silver Lining to the Gulf Coast Oil Catastrophe?

When the oil rig Deepwater Horizon sank on April 20th killing 11 people and opening an underwater oil geyser 5,000 feet below the ocean surface, few predicted the length and extent of the disaster. The inability to stop the leak, which the federal government now estimates is dumping 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day (approximately an Exxon Valdez spill every 4 to 7 days), is heavily impacting the Gulf Coast ecosystem, generating profound effects on its communities and economy for years and potentially decades to come. As the oil-soaked wildlife pictures roll in and uncertainty prevails around the region's seafood and tourist industries, it's hard to imagine any beneficial outcome from this calamity.

However, there are numerous examples of environmental disasters that generated enormous long-term benefits out of the ashes of tragedy. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill which also occurred from an oil rig blowout soiled pristine California beaches, killing thousands of birds and impacting uncounted numbers of seals and sea lions. This event helped ignite and expand environmental consciousness which in 1970 resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio -- the river literally caught on fire from its high pollution content -- spurred water pollution regulation such as the Clean Water Act. And the 1978 Love Canal tragedy of a community exposed to deadly carcinogens from a toxic waste landfill residing beneath homes and schools outraged the nation and led to the Superfund creation, which addresses hazardous waste sites. Thirty years later, families are still dealing with the health ramifications of the tragedy.

While these events were tragic for both people and ecosystems alike, the country learned from them. America enacted the needed widespread policy and regulation to prevent recurrence and solve the underlying pollution problem. Ultimately, these safeguards save lives, making America healthier and more secure. The Gulf Coast oil disaster should be no different.

Through the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service and commissioning an independent team to investigate the oil blowout, the Obama administration is taking appropriate steps for enacting regulation to allow safe oil drilling. However, the underlying problem of the massive spill still exists -- America's fossil fuel addiction. The U.S. cannot hope to be safe from the impact of fossil fuels such as oil on our national, economic, environmental and climate security, until we are free from our dependency.

This addiction could not be more apparent as governors and Congress members from Gulf Coast states are already asking the President to remove the 6 month moratorium of deepwater drilling because they believe it will cripple their economy--making statements like "we have to keep drilling" and "we can't survive a 6 month moratorium." The very states impacted by the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, which could potentially cripple coastal economies and the way of life for an entire region, are asking for continued deepwater drilling in the face of unknown risks and a pending investigation. If this doesn't prove our addiction, nothing will.

In order to curb U.S. oil and fossil fuel use, a comprehensive energy policy is needed which eliminates big oil subsidies, encourages energy efficiency, incentivizes renewable energy, spurs technological innovation and puts a cap on carbon. Arguments abound for not capping carbon, but without limiting this pollution, the U.S. is setting itself up for the next environmental and economic tragedy -- a changing climate. Once climate change becomes apparent, no amount of regulations or policies will be able to stop the growing impacts. Curbing carbon will also send the appropriate market signals to make clean energy profitable for America's businesses, ultimately ending our dependency more quickly.

In President Obama's national address on the BP oil crisis, he emphasized both the urgency of cleaning up the Gulf Coast oil spill and enacting policy to end America's fossil fuel dependency. There are political figures arguing that the President's push for clean energy is opportunistic in the face of tragedy. But not taking action that enhances the future security of communities who are now alerted to this danger would be truly irresponsible. Had past Presidents and Congresses simply cleaned up the mess of the Cuyahoga River, Love Canal or Santa Barbara and done nothing to solve the underlying problem, the public would consider it gross negligence.

If the worst environmental disaster doesn't generate a change in U.S. behavior and a comprehensive energy policy, all the pain and ecological destruction will have gone unheeded with no lessons learned about our current destructive energy choices. While the tragedy in the Gulf is enormous, an even greater tragedy is failing to set a course for solving the underlying cause of this disaster-America's fossil fuel addiction.